Little Lessons

Routines and Rituals

Posted by Mark Fallon

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Jun 20, 2014 5:00:00 AM

How do you start your day? Do you have a morning routine or ritual? If so, which is it – routine or ritual? There’s an important difference.

Routines and RitualsAccording to Dictionary.com, a routine is “a set of customary and often mechanically performed procedures or activities.” The key word in that definition is “mechanically”. Like machines, people don’t think when going through a routine, their actions have no significance.


A ritual is much more, it’s “a detailed method or procedure faithfully or regularly followed” or “the performance of ceremonial acts”. The actions in a ritual have meaning and importance. To get the most out of a ritual, the steps should be performed consciously.

Often, people allow rituals to become routines. Most religious services are filled with small and large rituals. Too often, people forget the importance of the rituals, and the actions become mere routines, lacking any meaning. As a result, the religious service loses much of its meaning too.

If I’m home, I start my day with a relaxing routine. I turn on my laptop, begin downloading the night’s email, and start a pot of coffee. I return to the computer, and while the coffee’s brewing, read my emails and check out my favorite news websites. As long as nothing needs urgent attention, I fix myself breakfast and read a book while eating. It’s a comfortable routine, and I sometimes vary it by adding a morning run.

When I’m on the road, my routine gives way to a ritual that I’ve developed over the years. My first step, turning on the laptop and downloading emails is the same, but nothing else is. I put on shorts and a t-shirt and head out for a run. If it’s winter, I’ve packed a jacket, pants and gloves for the run. Either way, I’m outdoors in the fresh air.

After getting dressed, I head to breakfast, without my tie or jacket. Usually I take my book or whatever newspaper was dropped in front of my door. I eat a light breakfast, using my reading to slow down the meal. Upon returning to my room, I put on my tie and jacket, make one last check on email, and head off to my client.

Why the difference and why do I call one a “routine” and one a “ritual”? My location dictates what I’ll be doing during the day. While at home, I’m in the solitude of my office - writing, doing research, making a phone call or two during the day. Not too stressful.

When I’m on the road, I’ll be spending the entire day with my client, reviewing processes and conducting interviews. These activities require a lot more energy. I don’t have the luxury of “having a bad day”. My client expects me to be upbeat and ready to work.

My rituals aren’t the superstitious actions often associated with professional athletes, especially baseball players. I don’t have to take the same route onto the field, take exactly three swings of the bat, or step over the foul line when returning to the dugout. The steps don’t have power over me, but they have meaning to me. The steps give me control over my thoughts and attitude.

My ritual is important because it gives me the energy I need, and helps place me in the right mood for the day ahead. Each component of the ritual is important, because it adds stability in an unstable condition. Cities, rental cars and hotel rooms change and often blur together. The steps of my ritual ground me.

Checking my email every morning, while perhaps obsessive, keeps me in touch with the rest of my life. The run gets my heart pumping and endorphins flowing. Eating breakfast without a tie keeps the day my own for a just a short time longer. Putting on the tie and jacket prepare me for the job I have in front of me. When I arrive at my client’s office, they are sure to hear a cheerful “Good Morning”, and I’m ready to get to work.

I was reminded about the importance of rituals when reading a book on Zen Buddhism. Zen masters require their pupils to learn exacting steps to prepare for certain activities. If painting, a Zen student must examine and align their brushes in a certain way before beginning. In archery, the bow and arrow must be approached and picked up in the proscribed manner. Even the process of unwrapping flowers must follow the same steps every time.

Following these customs and rituals don’t guarantee success for the Zen student. But they do put him in the right frame of mind for the next action. Before a ceremony begins, these steps prepare the participant. In many ways, the preparation is as important as the ceremony itself.

Creating rituals may help you with certain tasks or responsibilities. Staff meetings or giving presentations may cause you anxiety. Maybe interviews or performance reviews make you uneasy. Perhaps it’s just getting the day started on the right track.

You don’t have to be a Zen master to create a ritual that works for you. Make a list of the types of activities that put you at ease. Look at your morning routine for those things that add energy, not drain you. Physical activities are important, as they put your mind and your body in the same state. The activities don’t have to be aerobic, and could be as simple as breathing exercises. If appropriate, integrate prayer or meditation.

Put together a process that fits with your day and your surroundings. Go through the ritual to see if it changes your viewpoint and attitude. Consider why you’ve chosen certain steps and eliminated others. Give your actions meaning and importance. Practice your ritual regularly and you will notice a difference.

Be careful not to let the ritual degrade into a routine. When the steps no longer have meaning, they will not help you. Think about your actions, especially the ones that require no thought, like eating. Enjoy the moment you’ve created for yourself. Enjoy the ritual that will provide you the stability and strength you need in an ever-changing world.

 

Topics: reflection, inspiration